No, That’s Not Christianity: Part 1
The word “heaven” shows up roughly 700-800 times in the Bible, depending on the translation.
Incidentally, the reason for that wide variance is that the two words from which the word “heaven” is translated – “shamayim” in Hebrew and “ouranous” in Greek – can refer to any of three distinct but related concepts that are not always best translated “heaven.” They can refer to:
1) the sky, as in Genesis 1:8; or to
(In truth, these were all essentially the same concept to ancient readers, while our modern understanding of cosmology and astronomy creates a distinction, but that’s of secondary importance here.)
Not so incidentally, in absolutely none of those hundreds of examples of the term “heaven” — in any translation of the Bible — is there a single mention of anyone going there as a disembodied “soul” or “spirit” after they die. It is never described as happening; no one ever asks for it, prays for it, hopes for it or even raises it as a possibility or a concept, and God never promises nor even hints at it.
The sole, rule-proving exception would be when Jesus said, “No one has ever gone into heaven except the One who came from heaven – that is, the Son of Man.” (John 3:13)
“Going to heaven” – as a concept of the afterlife (and this distinction is important) – is entirely foreign to the narrative of the Bible. You can scour the Bible from beginning to end and you will find it nowhere in all of Scripture. Not one verse, passage, chapter or book of the Bible ever makes any mention whatsoever of an afterlife in heaven.
That’s an idea native to Greek philosophy and Gnosticism, with its strict distinction between spirit and matter, and to Greco-Roman mythology: pick up the Iliad and the Odyssey and the Aeneid and other writings about the gods of Olympus and their dealings with mortals and you’ll find plenty there about Hades and Elysium and the disembodied spirits or “shades” who dwell there, or of the spirits of heroes ascending in death for apotheosis on Mt. Olympus.
But that idea is totally alien to the Bible. The Bible knows nothing of disembodied souls or spirits leaving this world in death to go to some other world to dwell among angels and departed loved ones. It’s just not in there, because that’s not what the Bible is about.
The Bible speaks instead about the eventual renewal of creation, and our physical, bodily resurrection to eternal life upon this earth, in this world, restored to paradise. Contrary to the aforementioned gnostic dualism of pagan thought, the biblical narrative insists that the material world is intrinsically “very good” (Genesis 1:31) and that its corruption by human sin and rebellion against God is a problem from which it is to be redeemed (Matthew 19:28; Acts 3:19-21; Revelation 21), not escaped and abandoned in favor of some other world. The overall narrative of the Bible is about heaven coming here, to earth, not dead humans going to heaven in ghost form. It’s right there in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven … ”
And, if I’m straining your patience as a reader by reiterating this claim to the point of redundancy, it’s not because I take your time or attention for granted. I want to make sure my argument is eminently falsifiable, with no room for qualification. That way, if I’m wrong, it should be surpassingly easy to prove me wrong: just produce one passage of the Bible that explicitly affirms this idea of “dying and going to heaven.” It can’t be done, though, because there is no such passage.
Sola Scriptura, Huh?
There is, however, no shortage of passages that would seem – at first glance – to accomplish this. But they only seem to do that, and that’s only because we bring that idea to the Bible. We would never get that idea from the Bible if we didn’t already import it from elsewhere before we ever picked up the Bible. If we read those passages in their historical and literary context and take the Bible on its own terms without imposing external expectations upon it, not only would that idea never occur to us, but we’d see plainly that those passages are talking about something else entirely – typically, they’re either talking about the indwelling of the Spirit of God in the here-and-now and our representative dwelling within the Godhead through Christ, or they’re talking about our eventual physical, bodily resurrection from the dead at Christ’s return.
I realize, of course, that winning this argument would be a hard-fought battle demanding far more than the few paragraphs I’ve written here so far, since this “dying and going to heaven”-paradigm is synonymous with Christianity itself for most people, and long-held religious beliefs die hard. It would require, at the very least, painstakingly going through the Bible, passage-by-misunderstood passage, and explicitly deconstructing longstanding and deeply-entrenched interpretations of those passages. That’s an exercise I quite enjoy for its own sake, actually, but it’s beyond the scope of my purposes here, so I’ve added that content as a follow-up to this. If you absolutely must be convinced of the error of our popular ideas about the afterlife before you can proceed, I explain that more comprehensively at the article linked above, but there is a more important point I’m trying to make here.
No, my purpose here is not just to convince people of this particular error of the market-standard version of Christianity. That error is toxic in itself, but it’s still only an emblematic symptom of a deeper, more fundamental problem within the Church. The present state of market-standard Christianity is bad enough and worth addressing, but it is the forces that have twisted it into that shape that are the real problem. We could try to hammer it into a more biblically-consistent shape today, but it will only bounce right back tomorrow if we don’t address those underlying problems first.
The biggest problem is that we just don’t follow the Bible.
We think we do, but that’s only an illusion brought about by groupthink and confirmation bias and culturally-inculcated presuppositions.
We use the Bible as a talisman, or a tribal totem. We swear oaths on it and we swear by it for our doctrines and dogmas. We quote-mine it for proof texts and maybe memorize the portions from which we derive personal comfort and inspiration. And we take what others say about it as a shibboleth for orthodoxy within whatever tradition to which we belong.
So, we make great use of the Bible, as a symbol and a tribal banner, a security blanket, and sometimes a weapon, or even an idol.
But … actually reading it, from beginning to end, to find out what it’s all about, and what God’s plan and purposes are, and how we fit into them and carry them out?
No, generally speaking and collectively – we most emphatically do not do that.
That’s not to say that no Christian ever reads the Bible from start to finish in its entirety. Most don’t, according to several polls and studies that have been done in recent years, but some do. But, most (if not all) people who do – myself included – were told by others what it teaches long before we were in a position to read it for ourselves. We get its supposed meaning primarily from sermons and Sunday school and only read it ourselves as a follow-up, if at all. If you were raised in church, this probably started happening before you even learned how to read. By the time a person does pick up the Bible to read it for himself, he is largely just projecting his already-formed beliefs upon the text and feeding them back to himself – reading within a broader narrative framework that has been presupposed, never noticing along the way that this framework is never justified by the text itself.
We get our religious beliefs from cultural conditioning first, and only then, after the fact, do we consult the Bible.
Our god Is Our Stomach
Our teachings are “biblical” in the same way the Devil’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness was “biblical”: he quoted Scripture, but out of context and on an ad hoc basis to divert Jesus from the overall purposes of God as represented in Scripture, namely, his own mission to save humanity.
Which is exactly what we collectively do, and our collective misconception about the afterlife is just one glaring example of this.
It’s an ever-present aspect of fallen human behavior. It is our default tendency if we don’t intentionally act against it. This is what it means to have a “sinful nature,” which we must fight in ourselves by deliberately “living by the Spirit.” Otherwise, our sinful natures win out.
A prime illustration is when Jesus fed the 5,000, and because of this, they determined that he was “the Prophet who was to come into the world,” and so tried to “make him king by force.” (John 6:14-15)
On a certain level, their response was undeniably “biblical.” If that happened today, no preacher, teacher or seminary professor on earth could definitively refute them, from a scriptural standpoint, if they were even inclined to try. Most churchgoers would probably join in and condemn as heretics and traitors anyone who opposed them – Jesus was, in fact, the Prophet who was to come into the world. He is and was the rightful king. There is no arguing with that.
Yet, when they caught up with Jesus on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, he rebuked them: “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” (John 6:26)
They wanted him as king, but not because they saw God’s purposes at work in him and wanted to join him in those purposes. Their interest was in how he fit into their purposes – how he could gratify their appetites. And, many people – not just from the crowds, but from among his own disciples – deserted him when they realized that he wouldn’t be of any use to them.
And that’s the approach we tend to bring to the Bible as a whole. We don’t approach religion or the Bible with a mindset of seeking God’s purposes and plan and fitting ourselves into it. We fit God into our lives. Jesus Christ is an accessory to our lives, not the center. He’s not really our Lord and King; he’s our mascot – the imagined spokesman for all of our own ideas and cultural values and political preferences. If we don’t like the depiction of Jesus we find in our church, we shop around until we find a “Jesus” and a church better suited to us, who reinforces all the positions we would already hold anyway.
Most people just want to live their lives and pursue the things that interest them in this world. Christianity is largely just an add-on to what we’d be doing anyway if we weren’t Christians.
Consider the typical sermons preached today.
How often is the substance of a sermon about “how to be a better spouse” or “how to be a better parent” or “how to find God’s purpose for your life” (i.e., career advice), or even “how to vote,” or any number of other varieties of loosely “biblical” life-coaching, while the gospel itself is treated as an afterthought, if its mentioned at all?
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a better spouse or with finding the best fit for a career. But, we didn’t need a Messiah for any of that, and trying to fit him into our purposes is a tacit rejection of his purposes.
And we don’t just do that in the moment, sermon by sermon. We’ve done that with the whole narrative – the whole religion.
The Ouija Board of the Religious Marketplace
And, we don’t do this, necessarily, as individuals, but collectively – as a marketplace of religious consumers.
As a marketplace of consumers, we don’t actually care about God’s purposes and plan. We care about our own. And, we all know we’re going to die, and we’re worried about it. How can Christianity help?
Of course, the true biblical narrative answers that with the promise of resurrection at the end of history, at the renewal of the earth.
But that’s a long way off. We don’t want to wait that long, and death is scary now, we want our answers and our gratification now, and so we want assurances that grandma “is in a better place” now. So, the marketplace meets that demand by supplying a supposedly biblical narrative with a solution — a gospel of immediate gratification.
And, to reiterate – I am not saying we do this as individuals.
The marketplace of religion is a lot like a Ouija board: theoretically, no single person is moving the planchette to land it in a particular place. The collective pressure from all the people touching it is what moves it, regardless of where any individual person wants it to go. But, the perceived effect is that the planchette moved on its own and was placed by otherworldly forces to supernaturally spell out a message from beyond. But, no – it was just the completely natural, collective subconscious will of humans expressed through the ideomotor effect.
The exact same phenomenon occurs, but on a much larger scale, to create market-standard Christianity: we collectively shape the message and direction of the Church, but we attribute it to God and so we submit to it as beyond our right to question or oppose. But, no. It’s just us — not “us” as a collection of individuals, but “us” as the herd.
I don’t believe most preachers are necessarily deliberately crafting their sermons to get the maximum number of butts in seats. Some do, and I think it’s pretty obvious who they are, but the majority of preachers who sincerely teach what people most want to hear – and the seminaries that train such preachers – are those who are most rewarded by the marketplace of religious consumers, and so they enjoy the greater market share, and so their brand of Christianity becomes the market-standard version to which all others are compared, and the outliers are regarded as weird and heretical.
And, while Jesus often deliberately drove off large crowds so that only the most fully devoted disciples remained, most preachers and churchgoers today, in contrast, take large or growing congregations as a sign of God’s approval, endorsement and anointing, with total disregard for Jesus’ warnings against wide paths and broad gates.
The result is what we might call “Lowest Common Denominator Religion”: a religion that masquerades as Christianity and proliferates by appealing to the highest number of people by meeting the most widespread set of demands, which is for a religion that requires nothing of them and promises everything they want, with no conditions.
A Gospel Without Power, A Church Without Life
Among other golden calves, the Church continues to teach this error about “dying and going to heaven” and presents it as the very essence of the gospel. The Church is teaching falsehood as “the word of God.”
Is it any wonder, then, that the Church is dying in the West – that our influence is fading and our light is dimming in the world, as our culture races ever deeper into darkness and depravity and corruption?
It is because we bear a “word of God” that has no power, no truth. It is a “gospel” of our own making, with no power to save.
Consequently, God is not with us and does not bless our efforts as the Church, the Spirit of God does not empower us, and the life of Christ is not in us, because we do not operate under His authority, bearing His message and advancing His cause. Until we do, our church services are an empty farce and all we’re doing is playing “Christian.”
That’s the bad news.
The good news is … life is nonetheless set before us. The infinite power of God Himself – to effect miracles and bring life and enlightenment to ourselves, our neighbors, our families and our civilization – is ours for the taking.
All we have to do is read the Bible, teach what it teaches, and do what it says.
That’s easier said than done, I realize. But it can be done. It must be done.
And, it isn’t, at the end of the day, that difficult. There are more steps to follow, but step one is to just read the Bible, and read it with what wise men call “The Beginner’s Mind” (google it if you need to).